HOW TO WIN AND STILL BE A LOSER
The story of David McCallum's life
by Bob O'Hara
Like many Hollywood stars, David McCallum had to work his way toward success. In fact, he started his career approximately 20 years ago when he took his first professional job wit the BBC radio. At the time, he was about 12 years old, but already determine to make acting his life's work.
Two years ago, David was chosen to portray agent Illya Kuryakin in NBC-TV's The Man From UNCLE. In this short time he has become one of our most popular stars and one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood. Enjoying the fame and fortune of the winners' circle, David takes his success with pride, a few regrets, and an uneasy concern for the future.
David admits that his father would have preferred him to become a musician rather than an actor. "My father, being a Scotchman, had hoped I would stick with the oboe," says David. "That way I'd never have to worry about where my next meal was coming from. But for as long as I could remember, I wanted to act, perhaps more than I wanted to eat."David's father is a famed violinist and has had a celebrated career of his own. His mother is a cellist. It was only natural for both parents to wish their son to pursue a musical career. As a child, David's training, the discipline of a musician, proved a valuable asset to his craft as an actor.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, David was raised in London. Perhaps he would never have realized an acting career had his parents not moved to London. In making the move, David was brought closer to the world of theatre. Throughout his teens he accepted any job, and in one British theatre he worked as an electrician. All the time, he was watching and learning. Later, he studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
His career suffered only one interruption, when he was drafted into the British army (1951-1953). By the time he reached America, he had already established an impressive list of stage credits.
Prior to the UNCLE series, David was a familiar face to movie and TV fans, but it was the role of Illya that skyrocketed him to fame. Among the motion pictures he has made are The Great Escape, Billy Budd, Freud, The Long the Short and the Tall and The Greatest Story Ever Told. His TV appearances included Profiles in Courage, Perry Mason, Outer Limits, and The Travels of Jamie McPheeters. The came The Man From UNCLE.
"It's a strange lot, that of the actor," says McCallum. "You can spend years doing a hundred different parts and then in one show something clicks and you find out what real success is like. You many not even care much for the part you're doing, the play the series, whatever, but it turns out to be that lucky break. There are many good actors who work a lifetime without experiencing that click of success. They make good money and live comfortably, in fact many of them are quite wealthy. But they never achieve the one most important goal of every actor, recognition.
"Most actors seek recognition more than any of the other rewards of success. I don't mean that people know you by name or my face, that's only a small part of it. I'm referring to the recognition of your talents, your capabilities as an actor. I know it's difficult to understand what I mean. It's like doing one performance of Hamlet and knowing that you've done it to the best of your ability, that you were good, that your audience saw you as Hamlet. That kind of recognition can mean more to an actor than merely being part of a popular show, movie or TV series.
David looks on his own success with much the same feeling. He has often told reporters that he doesn't know exactly how to take the success that has befallen him. "In many ways, it's a false sense of success," he told one interviewer. "The UNCLE series is pretty much a part of the James Bond fad, the secret agent crazewave that has become so popular in the past two years or so. It won't last, and that puts you in a shaky position.
"More than that, your own success in a show like this is also part of that popularity, that fad. You can't help but feel you owe your success to a passing phenomenon. It makes you wonder how much of that success you can attribute to your own talents. It's frightening to think you might just be a part of that passing fancy.
"There's also the danger of becoming too closely associated with a program that is born out of a popular craze. Suppose the spy-thrillers are replace by a motorcycle fad. Your fans may not be able to accept the change, or any change for that matter."
Although David is grateful to the series that has skyrocketed him to star status, he is concerned about facing his third season in the series. He feels his success is too closely hinged to the series and the Illya characterization.
"I've seen too many actors lose their own identity by clinging too long to one role. It's a success gimmick peculiar to television, but it can happen occasionally in motion pictures, too. I'm sure that Sean Connery is relived in knowing that he has probably done his has stint as James Bond.
"When I first started acting, I was primarily interested in the classics, in heavy dramatic roles. I still am, and I hope that I'll be able to fulfill some of those ambitions once I'm free from my UNCLE commitments. I only hope that Illya and I won't be losers once the series has worn out its popularity. If it wasn't for contract agreements, I'd muchrather make the break now, rather than risk being permanently typecast."
David has already taken steps to survive the fast success of UNCLE. During the summer he completed a motion picture for MGM, Around the World Under The Sea. This fall he hopes to make as many personal appearances as possible, guesting on other TV shows as David McCallum, actor, song-and-dance man, and not as Illya Kuryakin. He is especially interested in the dramatic shows, claiming that "there isn't much opportunity to exercise your acting in the UNCLE scripts.
"You merely fall into a pattern of acting, having already exhausted the dimensions of the character. You become a lazy actor and when you do, you've lost everything."
Success has already dealt a losing hand to David in his private life. his 8-year marriage to actress Jill Ireland seems certain to come to an end in the divorce courts this year.
The loss of his family and home life have been David's greatest failure and now, perhaps, he is even a little bitter toward his own success. He and Jill knew few marital problems prior to his instant rise to fame. His wife and three sons were David's greatest pride.
In recent interviews, David has been reluctant to speak about his separation except in terms of his sons, Jason, Paul and Valentine. "I can't say that my career wasn't involved in all of this, but I do say that it won't stand in the way of my responsibilities to my boys. I don't ever want to lose my sons. I've lost too much already."
It takes a lot of winning and a lot of losing to make it in Hollywood's winners' circle. And David McCallum can tell you that success doesn't always make you a winner. It's a very small circle.